Note from Molly: Today’s post is by my good friend, Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake, AKA JVB, who wants to share some important lessons she has learned since she started competing and coaching in powerlifting. She’s also going to share some very exciting news with you, so make sure you read through to the end!
I’ll never forget how I felt the night before my first powerlifting meet.
I was packing my bag for the next morning while my daughter was sitting on the bed, surrounded by all manner of gym attire, and we were chatting. To be certain, she was doing all the talking, as is her way. I listened with most of an ear while I tossed in my gear: Chucks? Check. Tall socks? (Bright green, no less.) Check. Singlet? Check.
Nerves? Check, check, check.
I was 36 years old and tomorrow would be my first time competing in a sporting event, ever.
I can still hear the sound of her voice as I moved about the room, folding and refolding, checking my packing list and checking it again, and I remember thinking: Does she see me right now? Can she tell I’m quaking a bit in my boots?
I hope she does, I thought, and I hope she sees me decide to keep going forward anyway.
I hope tomorrow when she sees me on the platform it will sink into her ever-growing brain that the very best adventures in life are the ones borne out of bravery.
I zipped up my bag, tossed it on the floor, and flopped down on the bed to chat with her for real before it was time for bed.
The next day, I stood to the side of the platform, hands on hips, game face on. (Lucky for me my nervous face looks a lot like a game face.) I was shifting slowly from one leg to the other, visualizing myself nailing this first squat attempt, my first-ever foray into an athletic competition. I heard the judge shout out:
It was my turn. I strode onto the platform and placed my hands on the bar, getting ready to duck under and get into position. The head judge was sitting directly in front of me and behind him, was a crowd of over a hundred people.
It felt like a million.
It was quiet in the room, not much louder than the dull buzz of people talking amongst themselves, but I could feel all eyes on me. I stepped forward, ducked my head under the bar, wiggling my shoulders to where I wanted them, and stood up tall.
“Goooooo, MOMMMYYYYY!!!” came the rallying cry.
It was my girl. I knew she could see me. I took a deep breath, braced, and descended.
Trying New Things Makes Strong Really Fun
I hope I never forget that story, and am happy to have a record of it here so that I won’t. Even though this was my first meet, I was not exactly new to lifting, nor to the strength training game in general. At that point I had been a personal trainer for six years and was working as a strength coach at The Movement Minneapolis, but this experience drove home what it felt like to try something new again.
I’m still at Movement, and I coach our members and my own personal clients on how to use strength training to create a strong, happily functional body every day. I do the same for our powerlifting team, with the strong part geared more specifically to the competition lifts. A lot of what they learn is new at first, and a because of that, also a little scary at first.
Side story: We had a member a couple of years ago, a wickedly funny woman who would say, “That looks Scary Larry!” when shown a new move, and it’s a phrase that I repeat often today because it’s funny, and funny always trumps scary.
Besides being a coach at Movement, I’m also the first point of contact for anyone that wants to join our gym. They meet with me one-on-one or in a small group so we can discuss their goals and I can show them what we’re all about. I get to meet many different people from all walks of life and experience levels, but I think those who are completely new to lifting weights are the bravest, and I tell them so.
While my gym is home to me, to a potentially new member the sound of clanging plates, crashing bars, and whoops of celebration may be foreign. And there is absolutely nothing better than seeing the looks on the faces of the ones who decide it will be their home, too, that they will revel in learning new things.
The revelry is the same with our powerlifters, it’s just that their PRs are set on the platform.
That’s what it comes back to, right? Strong is fun, I’ve said from the start. I took home a medal in that first competition, and two more since. I’ve consistently set PRs in every meet and am now ranked number one for the barbell back squat in the Minnesota USA Powerlifting Federation.
Yes, the medals are cool, and I just might carry all of them around as totems in my gym bag, but that’s not really my point:
The point is you don’t know how awesome you can be unless you’re willing to give it a shot. And don’t you want to know?
These are the four most important lessons I’ve learned since I started competing and coaching powerlifting. And I want you to turn around and use that info to do the damn thing — to take the leap.
Lesson #1: Pretty Much Anyone Can Do It
Take a second and think: what do you think a powerlifter looks like? While acknowledging the fact that I’m painting in pretty broad strokes, I’ll bet some of you pictured 1) a man; 2) a very, very large man; 3) a very, very large man, maybe with a beard, in a singlet, with veins popping and eyeballs bulging, as he deadlifts a bar loaded down with what looks like every weight plate in the gym on each side.
This mental imagery, in reality, makes up a very small percentage of powerlifters, but that’s often what we think of because those are the powerlifters everyone is talking about, sharing videos of, and posting photos of.
The truth is a powerlifter looks just like me. And you. Here’s how it all breaks down:
How Strong Do You Have To Be To Compete?
I reached out Joe Warpeha, Minnesota state chairman for the USAPL Federation to get the answer to this question, to find out the absolute minimum amount of weight a competitor needs to be strong enough to lift in a powerlifting meet. This is what he had to say:
“The minimum on any lift is an empty bar plus collars. So, 55 pounds or 25 kilograms is the minimum weight.”
According to the rules of the USAPL you don’t even need to lift a bar with plates on it to compete. It’s important to note, however, that deadlifting an empty bar from the floor can make getting into a neutral spine, hips-below-the-shoulders deadlift position extremely difficult. Fifteen-kilogram plates are the lightest plates that bring the bar to a more ideal position — roughly nine inches off the floor — and the weight to a total of 55 kilos, or 121 pounds.
If that’s not you yet, then there you have it: goal number one.
How Old Do You Need To Be To Compete?
To head you off the tl;dr at the pass: You can compete in powerlifting from the age of 14 on up (seriously up, there are women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s competing in powerlifting), and you can also leverage your age by competing in more than one weight class to increase your chances of setting records and medaling.
But if you want the nitty-gritty, here are the rules from the International Powerlifting Federation (IPL) Technical Rulebook:
Women’s Open: “From the day she reaches 14 years and upwards (no category restrictions need apply).”
Sub-Junior: “From the day she reaches 14 years and throughout the full calendar year in which she reaches 18 years.”
Junior: “From 1 January in the calendar year she reaches 19 years and throughout the full calendar year in which she reaches 23 years.”
Master I: “From 1 January in the calendar year she reaches 40 years and throughout the full calendar year in which she reaches 49 years.”
Master II: “From 1 January in the calendar year she reaches 50 years and throughout the full calendar year in which she reaches 59 years.”
How Much Do You Need to Weigh To Compete?
This one is easy! You can weigh absolutely anything, my dears. Lifters in powerlifting meets are divided into weight classes because placing and medaling is by your bodyweight relative to the amount of weight you lift.
47.0 kg Class: Up to 47.0 kg (103.4 pounds)
52.0 kg Class: From 47.01 kg up to 52.0 kg (103.42–114.4 pounds)
57.0 kg Class: From 52.01 kg up to 57.0 kg (114.42–125.4 pounds)
63.0 kg Class: From 57.01 kg up to 63.0 kg (125.42–138.6 pounds)
72.0 kg Class: From 63.01 kg up to 72.0 kg (138.62–158.4 pounds)
84.0 kg Class: From 72.01 kg up to 84.0 kg (158.42–184.8 pounds)
84.0+ kg Class: From 84.01 kg up to unlimited (184.82 and up)
When you first begin lifting in powerlifting meets, the weight class only matters as a category for entry. Cutting weight to get to a lower weight class or adding mass to get to the top of your current weight class (or to go a class higher), are things you can choose to worry about down the road if you wish, once you’ve built up your strength and technique and decide you want to get more competitive.
Or, you can keep competing in powerlifting and not give weight classes a second thought, and that perfectly fine, too. At end of the day, what really matters is setting your own PRs on the platform, not what number comes up on the scale.
Lesson #2: Powerlifting Is a Welcoming Community
I didn’t quite know what I was getting into for my first powerlifting meet and in hindsight, that may have been a blessing.
When I arrived and approached the check-in table, the meet judge manning the table checked my gear, had me sign my life away on a few sheets of paper, then handed me a card with my name on it and said, “Write your opening attempts and rack heights on this and give it to the woman (another meet judge) who does your weigh-in.”
Ummmmm, rack heights? Panic. Immediately I picture the rack, a medieval torture device, that uses pulleys and ropes to stretch a person so far it tears their limbs off. This can’t be what he meant, right?
- My imagination really needs to take a chill pill sometimes.
- Powerlifting meets use an adjustable rack for squats and bench press (no rack needed for deadlifts, natch), and I needed to determine my rack heights so that the meet volunteers would know how high to set it for those two particular lifts.
It turns out powerlifting meets are quite luxurious and everything from rack heights to plates are adjusted and loaded for you. It’s like having your own personal pit crew, and it’s the best.
What I quickly learned is that powerlifting meets are, on the whole, very well-staffed, and the volunteers and judges are on the lookout for lost-looking people like I was at that first meet. An angel I had never before met swooped in and guided me through the process before sending me off to weigh-ins, and that’s a scene I see repeated over and over again at meets — except now sometimes it’s me taking a moment to guide the new and lost-looking lifter. You gotta pay it forward, you know?
Also worth noting: you will have a cheer squad of strangers every time you approach the platform. The announcer calls out the name of each lifter when it’s their turn and everyone, from the audience to the spotters and the other lifters, will cheer when you go up to lift, shout and encourage you through the lift, and applaud after you’ve finished, no matter the outcome.
Lesson #3: It Gives Your Training Purpose
This is so, so clutch. Training for powerlifting (even if you choose not to compete) gives your workout a bit more heft and meaning: what was once a “workout” is now a “training session.”
Because of that sense of purpose, following a training plan for powerlifting will improve your consistency, the stuff PRs are made of. You’re accountable to the training plan because now you have strength goals that you are strongly motivated to achieve. There is nothing quite like seeing three white lights shining brightly, letting you know that your hard work and dedication led you to a successful attempt on competition day.
(FYI, in a meet there are three red and three white lights. Red lights indicate the lift was “no good,” and white lights mean a “good” lift. For a lift to count, a lifter must earn two out of three white lights.)
Powerlifting programs focus on improving the competition lifts: the back squat, bench press, and deadlift. Training days often have a focus on the main lift and include what’s called “accessory” or “supportive” exercises that strengthen the muscles worked in the competition lift. Training frequency can be from three to six days a week (I’m a big fan of about four), and sessions typically last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes.
A great training program won’t just have you lifting heavy every day, but will wave training volume and intensity to maximize muscle adaptation and avoid burnout. Powerlifting can be a grind, but it really doesn’t have to be. Paying attention to how a lift feels in real time and making adjustments as needed, emphasizing technique instead of letting your ego tell you how much weight to put on the bar, and making the most out of your recovery days will go a long way toward keeping your body healthy, strong, and injury-free.
From the above, you can see that training for powerlifting removes a lot of chaff. It has one main focus: strength. There is no hype about fat loss, six-pack abs, or losing that last ten pounds. In fact, the intention is to gain—strength, specifically—and to consistently move forward, step by step, towards your goals.
Lesson #4: Let’s Admit It, It’s Pretty Awesome
I mean, right?
Strong is fun for many reasons, and one of them is that there is something almost primal about using your whole body to move a heavy weight. Your focus must narrow and there can only be one objective: to succeed.
Women are showing up to the gym in droves, and I know it’s because they feel it: the desire for physical expression through strength. Powerlifting is the perfect outlet for that because there is no end game, there’s only better. And better, and better.
When you feel strong, you feel capable. When you feel capable, you have the mental and emotional freedom to take the chance on trying new things. Trying new things leads to new and fun adventures and you accomplishing things you never before thought possible.
And that right there, is the whole point of the thing. It’s everything.
Now to quote my little girl: Let’s goooooo!
Unapologetically Powerful is here!
Are you ready to become Unapologetically Powerful? If you’re even just a little bit interested in improving your back squat, bench press, and deadlift, and building lean, beautiful muscle, you’re going to love digging into this program.
Unapologetically Powerful is your go-to resource to learning all about the “big three” lifts, and removes any intimidation from training for and competing, should you decide to, in the sport of powerlifting.
Trainers Jen Sinkler and JVB have teamed up to provide you the answers to all of your powerlifting questions—and get you radically and unapologetically strong. Here’s what’s in the program:
- A comprehensive training manual that includes Beginner and Early Intermediate 12-week powerlifting programs, with a detailed introduction to biofeedback training.
- An extensive guide on how to compete for first-time powerlifters who want to step onto the platform.
- A complete exercise glossary with clear-cut written coaching cues and images.
- A massive video library of more than 140 exercise demonstration videos. Every movement in the program is in the video library, with detailed coaching cues to walk you through each exercise step by step.
- A revamped version of Lift Weights Faster geared specifically toward powerlifters.
Jennifer Blake’s leggings might be pink but her weights aren’t. A personal trainer at The Movement Minneapolis she is a powerlifting coach and competitor with a passion for helping her clients discover and grow their strength, inside and out. She’s here to spread the good word that strong is empowering and because of that, really, really fun. Facebook: Strong Is Fun, Twitter, Instagram.”